Raising our standards

SAT writing scores should not exempt students from the first writing requirement

Writing requirements seem like a topic for dead-eyed academic bureaucrats: a subject undeserving of attention, let alone debate. But what a school asks of its students tells us a great deal about that institution’s values and goals.

So Assoc. English Prof. James Seitz, who has questioned in a University press release whether the SAT writing exam provides an adequate proxy for the first writing requirement, has stirred up a conversation worth having.

Writing is foundational to liberal arts education at the University. All College students must fulfill three competency requirements, two of which have to do with writing. The first writing requirement introduces students to academic argument at the college level. The second writing requirement asks students to produce 20 pages in a semester in a small class (fewer than 30 students per professor). The third competency requirement asks students to demonstrate some proficiency in a foreign language.

Currently, incoming students can place out of the first writing requirement if they earn a score of 720 or higher on the writing section of the SAT. Seitz is right to question the validity of SAT-based exemptions from the first writing requirement. The SAT’s shortcomings — particularly when it comes to the writing portion — are well-known. Until we can say with confidence that the SAT’s essays gauge student writing effectively, SAT scores should not exempt students from the first writing requirement.

The biggest problem with the SAT writing section in its current form is that for the purposes of the essay, facts aren’t taken into account for scoring. One strategy for test-takers is to ignore facts altogether. To get a high score on the essay, students must provide examples. Fabricating examples is easier than digging them out of the recesses of your mind.

Students have 25 minutes to write their five-paragraph piece. By suspending accuracy, students can scribble faster.

Ignoring facts can be convenient. But such tactics won’t fly in the academic world (the realm of politics is another matter). A test that tacitly encourages students to neglect accuracy for the sake of streamlined argument is hardly cultivating the writing habits upon which liberal arts education is based.

The SAT’s breakneck pace is another reason why the test is a poor measure of writing ability. Good writing takes time and revision. It also requires thoughtfulness. A 25-minute impromptu essay might measure something — obedience to a five-paragraph essay template, the basic ability to construct a sentence — but it doesn’t measure writing proficiency in any meaningful way. Even the most gifted high school student would be hard-pressed to write with vividness and polish when devoting five minutes, tops, to each paragraph. And 25 minutes is not enough time to generate a thoughtful or original argument.

Sometimes final exams ask students to write hurried essays. This practice differs from what the SAT requires. Essays on timed exams in college measure, first and foremost, the student’s ability to synthesize the material he has learned in the class. Writing well helps, but the point of these essays is to give the student a chance to demonstrate what he has learned. The SAT, in contrast, purports to assess writing ability by asking students to discuss topics of which they may have no previous knowledge.

Finally, the SAT essay is too formulaic. The five-paragraph model can help high school students learn to make academic arguments. But once a student attains a degree of writing proficiency, the five-paragraph template is a hindrance, not a guide. Students who intend to write at the college level need to move beyond the five-paragraph essay. The first writing requirement guides students past formulaic essay constructions. The SAT encourages generic writing.

David Coleman, the president of the College Board, which administers the SAT, announced Tuesday that a revamped SAT would arrive in 2016 (a year later than expected). Speaking at an education conference in September, Coleman hinted that the essay portion of the test would undergo big changes.

The College Board first included the writing portion in 2005, swelling the SAT scoring system from a maximum of 1600 to 2400 points in the process. As a new addition to the test, the writing section is a prime candidate for retooling. We hope that the College Board will improve the writing portion of the SAT by, for example, having test-takers analyze a provided text, which they would then refer to as evidence for their arguments.

But until the SAT writing section offers an adequate evaluation of writing ability, SAT scores should not exempt students from the University’s first writing requirement. And a satisfactory SAT may never materialize. Writing is a complex skill — difficult to measure through a standardized test.

Other ways of earning exemption from the first writing requirement — submitting a portfolio, coming in as an Echols scholar and scoring a 5 on the AP English Language exam — can remain in place for now, although the AP exemption runs into some of the same problems as the SAT-based exemption.

Published December 5, 2013 in FP test, Opinion

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